News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

When Green Becomes Garbage: State May Declare Used Solar Panels E-Waste

Broken solar panels like this one pose a disposal quandary | Photo: Darin Dingler/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The state's Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) will hold a hearing Monday to discuss the possibility of regulating the handling and disposal of used solar panels the same way the state regulates batteries and CRTs, but some environmental groups are saying those regulations aren't nearly strong enough.

Many photovoltaic panels contain substances that pose a risk to the environment, especially thin-film solar cells based on a cadmium telluride photovoltaic element. Cadmium, a metallic element, may pose a serious health risk in ingested or inhaled, and without the change in regulations by the DTSC, used cadmium telluride PV cells may well qualify as toxic waste under existing state law.

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DTSC's proposed regulations would basically add used or waste solar photovoltaic panels to the broad category of potentially toxic or hazardous products commonly known as "e-waste," which now includes batteries, CRT monitors, and some electronics. Adding PV panels to the e-waste category would exempt them from somewhat stricter regulations under state hazardous waste laws.

There is some sense in the DTSC's proposal. In a public notice released in August, DTSC spelled out its rationale for the regulatory change:

It is anticipated that with the increasing volumes of waste solar modules over time that recycling opportunities will also increase as new and existing recycling businesses enter the solar module recycling market. And, given that solar modules can be recycled and that portions of the modules can be reclaimed for use in new modules, or used in other products such as fiberglass, it is timely for DTSC to evaluate the benefits of creating regulatory mechanisms that will both encourage recycling and facilitate collection and transport. The new regulatory mechanisms proposed provide that standards for such activities be protective of human health and the environment.

Based on DTSC's experience in managing other similar waste streams, such as electronic wastes, it believes that waste solar modules fit well within an alternative set of management standards which are commensurate with the risks posed in managing such modules. In addition, encouraging the recycling of solar modules conserves valuable resources which further California's renewable energy generation goals.

But others disagree. In formal comments submitted to the DTSC, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) -- a non-profit that has been working to limit pollution from California's tech sector since 1982 -- argued that DTSC hasn't been managing e-waste stringently enough as it is, and that adding PV panels to the category would mean laxer regulation of the hazards the panels might pose to workers, the public, and the environment.The group also stated that DTSC lacks the regulatory authority to establish an effective PV panel recycling infrastructure for the state, and that without an efficient way to recycle the panels, Californians will have 900,000 pounds of cadmium on their collective hands and no way to deal with it short of sequestering it in hazardous waste facilities.

SVTC also holds that the state should identify who will pay for such a PV program, require labeling of PV components that may be hazardous, and include PV panels discarded by households in any set of regulations.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Unlike most e waste, PV panels are typically decades away from entering the waste stream. That said, and because it is becoming a bigger part of our energy supply, setting up photovoltaic recyclying infrastructure and funding mechanism is a good long term plan.

In terms of toxicity, there are important distinctions between the types of materials used to manufacture PV modules to consider. Once a crystalline, (mono, poly, and amorphous ) module leaves a manufacturing/assembly plant, they contain little if any toxic substances. These are the predominant technologies used to produce rooftop/enduser systems. On the other hand, some Thin Film PV technologies, which are mostly used in utility scale systems, contain far more hazardous substances. As such sponsors and regulators of these projects should be required up front to ensure that their equipment does not end up in the environment.